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Federal agency proposes worker heat protections

TALLAHASSEE --- The Biden administration is moving forward with a proposal that would require heat protections for workers across the country, after Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring signed a controversial law barring Florida local governments from imposing such requirements on businesses.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Tuesday released a proposed rule that would require employers to provide such things as water and rest breaks when temperatures top certain thresholds.

“Workers all over the country are passing out, suffering heat stroke and dying from heat exposure from just doing their jobs, and something must be done to protect them,” Douglas L. Parker, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, said in a prepared statement. “Today’s proposal is an important next step in the process to receive public input to craft a ‘win-win’ final rule that protects workers while being practical and workable for employers.”

The issue of requiring Florida businesses to provide heat protections for workers drew fierce debate during this year’s legislative session.

DeSantis in April signed a bill (HB 433) that includes preventing local governments from requiring heat-exposure protections for workers. That part of the bill came after the Miami-Dade County Commission last year considered a proposal to require construction and agriculture companies to take steps such as ensuring that workers have access to water and giving them 10-minute breaks in the shade every two hours when the heat index is at least 95 degrees, according to a House staff analysis.

Supporters of the bill, including groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, said it would prevent a patchwork of regulations and that employers already face requirements to protect workers from heat-related injuries. But opponents said workers need additional protections as they earn livings in Florida’s sometimes-stifling heat.

The federal government does not have specific standards for hazardous heat conditions, but OSHA can take action against businesses through what is known as a “general duty clause” of a workplace-safety law, according to a background document posted Tuesday on the agency’s website. The proposed rule seeks to provide specific standards.

“OSHA’s efforts to protect employees from hazardous heat conditions using the general duty clause, although important, have limitations leaving many workers vulnerable to heat-related hazards,” the 437-page background document said.

The proposed rule, in part, would require employers to develop plans to prevent heat-related illnesses or injuries and monitor heat conditions.

When conditions reach what is described as an “initial heat trigger,” such as a heat index of 80 degrees, employers would be required to take steps including providing cool drinking water and break areas. When conditions reach a “high heat trigger,” such as a heat index of 90 degrees, they would be required to take steps such as providing mandatory rest breaks of 15 minutes every two hours.

If the proposed rule is ultimately approved, it would apply to about 36 million workers in outdoor and indoor workplaces, according to OSHA. The proposal will be published in the Federal Register, starting a public-comment period before the agency could finalize a rule.

OSHA last week announced it had cited Guerrero Ag LLC, an Arcadia-based labor contractor, after a 41-year-old worker collapsed in December 2023 while harvesting oranges. The worker, who died after being hospitalized, had symptoms consistent with a heat stroke, the agency said in a news release.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.